The Ten: Big Ten Tourney Nebraska

Nebraska used Purdue’s help to claim its first Big Ten baseball championship. With the Boilermakers winning its season-ending series at Minnesota, the door opened for the Huskers to grab the title. Entering the Big Ten Tournament as the top seed, the first foe for the Huskers was the Boilermakers. Nebraska didn’t return any favors to Purdue, capping the first day of action with a 15-9 win over boys from West Lafayette. Due to rain and the length of the day’s play, a reshuffled tournament schedule saw the Huskers have an off-day on Thursday. No fear, here’s the 10 on a mix of Wednesday highlights, thoughts and notes on Darin Erstad’s club.

No title hangover

The Huskers didn’t enter the game just going through the motions. Though they were fresh off of a 21-run output to claim the title and taking on the eighth seed, Nebraska stormed out of the gates. Back-to-back doubles to start the game were part of a four-run first inning. As the game wore on, the hot start was needed.

Hohensee answers the bell

Nebraska’s quick start was countered by Purdue putting up five runs in the top of the second. Though he relinquished a four-run lead, credit Nebraska starter Jake Hohensee for responding and taming the Boilermakers for the rest of his start. Pitching six innings, the right-handered surrendered only one other run, striking out six batters while scattering seven hits. After the rocky second, Hohensee tossed back-to-back 1-2-3 innings, keeping the Nebraska bullpen quiet.

MoJo maina

Husker faithful have questioned and expressed their disbelief in MoJo Hagge’s absence from the Big Ten All-Freshman team. In his first game after the honors were announced, Hagge showed an impressive all-around game. At the plate, Hagge went 2-for-5 with two runs, two RBI and a home run. Hagge showed an impressive glove in the outfield, including a leaping rob of an extra-base hit.

Miller and Schreiber bring big sticks

The heart of the Husker lineup provided serious thump in Nebraska’s 15-run output. DH Scott Schreiber picked up four RBI and scored four runs, hitting a home run and adding a double. Behind him, first baseman Ben Miller drove in three runs behind a pair of doubles in four at-bats. After a slow start to the season, Schreiber is batting .336 with Miller checking in at .300, provided a potent 1-2 punch.

Schleppenbach continues late-season tear

He bats eighth, but Nebraska second baseman Jake Schleppenbach has been on fire against Big Ten foes. In Nebraska’s 16-7-1 conference showing, Schleppenbach hit .352 with eight doubles and three home runs. The postseason hasn’t slowed the senior, as Schleppenbach went 2-for-4 with a walk, collecting a double and scoring two runs. Schleppenbach’s presence allows Nebraska to have a bottom of the order a guy capable of driving in a runner from first baseball.

Coming up clutch

The Huskers put up big numbers in big situations. Nebraska went 5-for-13 with two outs, 8-for-21 with runners on, 6-for-15 with runners in scoring position and a most impressive 5-for-6 with runners at third base and less than two outs. In 29 advancement opportunities, 19 Huskers moved up at least at base. In the 13-hit attack, Nebraska shined when it mattered most.

Setting up the weekend

After Hohensee pitched six innings, Erstad only needed to use reliever Robbie Palkert to finish the game. Purdue did score a run in each of the final three innings, but with a large enough lead Palkert wasn’t in any danger. In only using two pitchers to get through the opening game, the Huskers bullpen is rested for the weekend. All starters can take the mound without any extra pressure of going as long as possible, and even Palkert is in good shape to bounce back, tossing 44 pitches.

Losing streak snapped

Though Nebraska entered the tournament with a pair of second-place finishes, they were riding a four-game losing streak. Since finishing runners-up to Indiana in the 2014 tournament, back-to-back 0-2 showings befell the Huskers. Now, after claiming their first conference championship, an end to the dry-spell has Nebraska zeroing in on its first tournament title.

Rain give Huskers extra rest

While it rained on and off all, only one game, the third of the day, was slightly delayed, and each game was played without pause. But the slight setback caused the fourth and final game of the game to be pushed to Thursday. As a result, Nebraska’s game against the winner of Maryland-Iowa was delayed until Friday. The tournament’s Wednesday start meant the eight teams were on short rest for a second consecutive week, but in playing Friday, Nebraska starter Derek Burkamper will now have a full week of rest between starts.

Hawkeyes await

The winner of that Maryland-Iowa game was the Hawkeyes, moving on with a 9-8 victory. Rick Heller’s team was the lone conference club to take a weekend set from Nebraska, winning two of three games in Lincoln, April 14-16. The Huskers meet a Hawkeye team that has won four of its last five Big Ten Tournament games, finishing runners-up to Ohio State last year, ready to lay it all on the line in needing the tournament’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to play next week.

10 Innings Extra: Huskers need “screw it” moment

Nebraska exceeded expectations in 2016. The Big Ten’s western-most program was not expected to be among the top three contenders for the Big Ten championship in the preseason, the favorites being Indiana, Maryland and Michigan. But the team finished a half-game behind champion Minnesota and reached the NCAA Tournament. For head coach Darin Erstad and the Huskers, it was a second regional appearance in three years, after claiming their third second-place finish in four seasons.

A program with great tradition, Nebraska seeks consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since 2007-08. Through two weekends of play, the team has an uphill battle in their quest to be a part of the field of 64. The Huskers sit 2-4 on the season after a rain-shortened opening weekend resulted in a two-game split versus UC Riverside and a 1-3 showing in the Big Ten – Pac-12 Baseball Challenge. Through the half-dozen games, Nebraska is batting .243 and the Huskers have crossed home plate only 20 times, averaging 3.3 runs per game.

A six-game start isn’t doom to a team’s postseason odds. But a year after exceeding expectations, the weight of what’s expected this season has Erstad waiting for his team to just play baseball.

Nebraska’s returned its top three hitters from its 37-22 club, a .281-hitting outfit a year ago. With juniors Jake Meyers and Scott Schreiber and senior Ben Miller, the top of the Husker order was expected to be potent. Meyers led the team with a .326 average, barely eclipsing Schreiber’s .325 mark, while Miller hit to the tune of .317. Schreiber’s 16 home runs were a Big Ten-best with Meyers and Schreiber combining for 28 doubles. Add junior left fielder Luis Alvarado and sophomore catcher Jesse Wilkening, a strong offensive core was expected to lead the Huskers.

But through six games, the abilities shown prior have yet to come through.

Alvarado is batting .308 with three doubles, a nice start to his third season in Lincoln. But he is the lone returning starter performing at an expected level. Schreiber is batting .250 without an extra-base hit, with Meyers and Miller a combined 8-for-48 on the season, a .166 average. Wilkening showed well as a freshman, batting .270 in 111 at-bats, but has only recorded two hits in 11 at-bats.

The sample sizes are small, it’s not unusual for a player to have a slump over the course of a half-dozen games, but when many key contributors are in a rut it’s hard for a team to get going.

What’s causing the funk? Did the returning players suddenly lose skill? Not to Erstad. Following Friday’s 7-5 loss to Utah, where the team left the bases loaded to end three of the first four innings, Erstad mentioned the slow starts may be a result of the players attempting too much to build off of the strong 2016 seasons.

“Right now we have some guys in their own heads a little bit, trying to have the seasons they’re supposed to have,” Erstad said. “I just want to get back to the bottom line of competing.”

For Meyers and Schreiber, as juniors, it is a draft year, while Miller opted to return to Nebraska after being a 32nd-round pick in last June’s draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But while the offensive output yet to come from the heart of the lineup, the players stepping into the spotlight for the first time have had no such problems. Nebraska closed out the weekend with a 4-3 win over Utah, spurred by a new-look 1-2 punch.

Batting leadoff, freshman outfielder Mojo Hagge went 3-for-5 while sophomore infielder Angelo Altavilla added two hits in five at-bats in the two-hole. On the young season, the two have combined for 16 hits in 33 at-bats. Altavilla and Hagge can’t be expected to continue to hit at their respective .444 and .533 clips for the rest of the season, but their emergence and shown ability against very good pitching gives Nebraska seven capable bats in the lineup, welcomed contributions as Erstad says  “we’re going to need it from all different parts.”

Now it’s time for the veterans to do their part.

“The guys that have a track record haven’t started to hit yet,” Erstad said. “It’s one of those things where we’ll keep throwing them out there and they’ll do their thing. We just need to get back to the basics with a lot of those guys and quit trying to do too much.”

The parts are there for Nebraska to have a season which ends in the NCAA Tournament. Knocking off the defending Pac-12 champions shows what the Huskers are capable of. It’s just a matter of time for it all to come together, newcomers and returners alike to contribute up and down the lineup.

“Our returners are putting so much stinking pressure on themselves right now to have big years, and sometimes that happens. At some point, they’re going to hit the tilt button and it’s going to be ‘screw it, let’s just play baseball.'”

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